St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of two kinds of zeal. In homily 51 he speaks of a “sick” zeal, a “wrong” zeal. And in homily 55 St. Isaac speaks of zeal as a “watchdog” and “shield” of the soul. However, to say these are two different kinds of zeal is not quite correct. Both find their origin in the natural, “incensive” faculty of the soul. This is an old English word that comes from the Latin meaning to enflame—in fact, the noun, incense comes from the same word. In contemporary English we still use cognate words such as ‘incendiary,’ as in the sentence, “A bomb is an incendiary device.” We also use the passive verb, ‘incensed,’ as in the sentence, “She was incensed by their rude remarks.” The incensive faculty of the soul is that aspect of our selves that is stirred up, or enflamed, so as to motivate us to action.
When the incensive aspect of our soul is sick, when we manifest what the Greek translators of St. Isaac call “wrong zeal,” we “send forth [our] zeal against the maladies of other men.” In other words, when we rebuke others, when we presume to correct those who have not asked for our help or who have not otherwise been entrusted to our care, especially if that rebuke is accompanied by an certain heat, or energy, when we rebuke and correct others in zeal, then we are acting out of a disordered passion, we are manifesting sick, or wrong, zeal. This is sick because the incensive faculty that has been given us for the labouring of our own soul’s health, we have turned outside ourselves in sending out our zeal against the sickness of others; and thus “[we] have expelled the health of [our] own souls.”
The English translators of St. Isaac’s text provide a note suggesting that an appropriate English word for this kind of zeal, or rather, this misuse of zeal, is “fanaticism.” Another word that comes to my mind is “fundamentalism.” St. Isaac says of this sick zeal that it “is not reckoned among men to be a form of wisdom, but as one of the maladies of the soul, namely narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance.” Fanaticism and/or fundamentalism misuse the zeal God has given us to change ourselves but instead direct it outwardly onto others. It is narrow-minded because it’s energy comes from what it sees as wrong or offensive in others, ignoring everything else that is important. That is, in seeking to correct what is perceived as an error in another, sick zeal forgets the person. It is fundamentalism in that it sees one issue (or a small group of issues) as so important that it cannot see the bigger picture, it cannot see the human person who needs love and care despite his or her sickness. The person who is motivated by sick zeal is more interested in making it clear exactly what is wrong with the other, than in actually saving the soul of the other (and, St. Isaac points out, in saving his or her own soul).
If we are really interested in helping others who are sick, who are in sin, and who have fallen, then St. Isaac tells us, “know that the sick are in greater need of loving care than of rebuke.” I have met very few people who have fallen into sin and who do not already know that they have fallen into sin. Their own conscience is rebuking them. They don’t need more rebuke, they need loving care. But instead of helping others by showing them loving care, we—driven by the passion of sick zeal—we feel the need to rebuke, and end up not helping the one we rebuke, but rather “bringing a grievous disease upon [our]self.” “The beginning,” St. Isaac tells us, “of divine wisdom is clemency and gentleness, which arise from greatness of soul and the bearing of the infirmities of men.” St. Isaac then quotes the scripture for us: “For, it is said, ‘We that are strong out to bear the infirmity of the weak,’ and ‘Restore the transgressor in the spirit of meekness.’ The Apostle numbers peace and patience among the fruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:1; Gal. 5:22).
And so it is in actually bearing the burdens of others, bearing with the infirmities of the weak, not in rebuking them, that we save both others and ourselves.
St. Isaac seems to suggest that perhaps the real problem, the reason why we give ourselves to sick zeal in the rebuke of others is that we lack genuine sorrow. Instead of being sorely grieved in our heart at the weakness, the sickness, of others, we give reign to our own senses, particularly our misdirected zeal in the form of anger. This “sorrow of mind,” St. Isaac says, “is a precious gift before God; and he who bears this gift as he ought is like a man who bears holiness in his members.” However, “A man who unleashes his tongue against other men, whether over good matters or evil, is unworthy of this grace.” We cannot acquire the sorrow of mind that “is a precious gift before God,” until we control our tongue, reign in our senses, and allow sorrow to dwell in our heart as an offering, as a precious gift before God.
It is so easy to see what other people are doing wrong. It is so easy to see for others what would be better, what they should do or should have done. This is particularly the case when it comes to failure, when it comes to sin. We want to rebuke and condemn. We want to apply canonical penances, to excommunicate, to make it clear that this or that sort of thing is not acceptable in the Church. St. Isaac likens this to the demand for justice. We want God to act in His justice—forgetting that if God were to act even for one moment in justice rather than mercy, we would all be condemned. We forget, St. Isaac tells us, that “As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so [in comparison] are the sins of all flesh…with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures.”
But what then of those who have sinned? Are we to say nothing? St. Isaac says that it is better, if our own soul is sick with anger, with misguided or sick zeal, it is better to say nothing but to learn to cultivate sorrow in our heart and mind as an offering that is precious to God. It is better to save our own soul than to give place to our outwardly-directed and thus sick zeal. As St. James puts it, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). But if we are spiritual, that is if we acquire genuine humility and meekness, both of which are the fruit of properly directed zeal, zeal directed toward my own repentance; then, perhaps, if it is our responsibility as pastor or teacher or parent, then with a heart and mind full of sorrow we may be called upon to restore the transgressor, as St. Paul says in Galatians 6:1. But if we are not spiritual, if we struggle with anger and crave justice or if it is not our responsibility, or calling to speak, then we will do more to save both our own souls and the soul of our fallen brother or sister, if we focus on “loving care” and leave the rebuking to the Holy Spirit.